As the dozen deputy sheriffs and child welfare workers approached the tidy, three-story white house in Trenton, Tenn., intending to remove all the kids because of reports of abuse, they came upon a bizarre sight. A young girl, 14 years old, was sitting cross-legged on the ground with her nose pressed up against the house. When a social worker asked why she was there, the girl said she had gotten in trouble. Asked how long she had been there, the girl replied, "Before lunchtime." It was 2:30 p.m. "It was pitiful," says investigator Don Curry. "It was so hot that day it made me sick." As Curry recalls, the girl was being disciplined that afternoon in June 2004 for getting a sibling's shoes wet. "It was something silly," he says, "something silly like that."

But as investigators began to examine Debra and Thomas Schmitz, who lived at the house with their 18 children—16 of them adopted, foster children or unofficially transferred to their care—they say that that incident proved to be among the milder forms of punishment. On Jan. 30 the Schmitzes went on trial in Brownsville, Tenn., on 31 counts of child abuse and child trafficking. The case of the Schmitzes—most of whose kids suffered from physical or emotional problems—has also focused attention on a little-known gray-market network of families who take in children (often through word of mouth and the Internet) cast off by their own adoptive parents. The collectors of unwanted children say they do it to help kids, though some skeptics suggest that money, in the form of state subsidies, furnishes another motive. "People call and say, 'I need your help; we can't have these kids in our home,'" says Frances Matthews, a friend of the Schmitzes' who has 10 adopted disabled kids at their home in nearby Kenton. "Sometimes you need a break."

Matthews explains that it is not uncommon for families in this kind of adoption network to exchange for brief periods disruptive or challenging children among themselves as a means of lessening the stress. What's more, many of the families practice "attachment therapy," a method that includes some controversial forms of discipline (see box). In Internet chat rooms, the Schmitzes sold themselves as AT experts—which they insist is a legitimate form of child rearing—to parents looking to unload their kids. But in his opening statement, prosecutor Garry Brown said they took the idea of discipline to criminal extreme, painting a harrowing portrait of life in the Schmitz household. He accused Debra, 46, of forcing one child to eat his own vomit; holding another child's head underwater as punishment; sitting on a girl and urinating on her; and hurling a wheelchair-bound girl into a swimming pool (the girl was pulled to safety). Tom, 48, who works for a portable-toilet company, is accused of placing a hose in a girl's mouth and turning on the water, and lancing a boil on another child with a box cutter as she screamed in pain. The couple allegedly forced children to dig what they were told were their own graves. The witnesses: 10 of the kids the Schmitzes cared for. Natasha Bennet, 16, told the court how she had been adopted from Russia at age 5 by a single American mom but was so unruly that the woman drove her to the Schmitzes one day in 2003 and left her there. "[Debra] welcomed me to a house of living hell," testified Natasha, who is now living in McKenzie, Tenn. "She told me I could call her 'mom' or 'master.'" Her first day at the house, said Natasha, she was put in the storm cellar for 20 minutes: "[Debra] told me every time I misbehaved that's where I'd go."

In his opening statement, Debra's attorney Barney Witherington tried to downplay the seriousness of the Schmitzes' actions. "They say she threw a butter knife at one of their children," he said. "It's a butter knife; it's not even a sharp knife." Witherington continued, "Everybody loves children. These children are different. The things that the Schmitzes did were absolutely necessary. The rest didn't happen." But to authorities, it was abuse by any name. "If you put kids in a storm cellar or a bed that's really a cage, that's not right," says Gibson County Sheriff Joe Shepard, who has led the investigation of the Schmitzes. "Psychologically it will affect them the rest of their days."

Some of Debra Schmitz's own kin, including her estranged mother, Shirley Hogan, 67, and daughter Melanie, 21, emphatically second that notion. (Debra was married twice and had three children, including Melanie, a student, prior to her marriage to Tom, with whom she has a son, Mackenzie, 16.) According to Shirley, in 1995 Debra and Tom began taking in kids from other families for brief stays, then moved on to taking foster children and finally to adopting their own in 1996. Their first adopted child was an African-American toddler named Marcus who fell prey to their abuse, says Melanie, who left home in 2001: "If Marcus dirtied his diaper, she'd make him wear it on his head."

Before long, the Schmitzes had branched out to taking in children that other adoptive families no longer wanted. Melanie recalls seeing her mother spending hours trolling the Internet looking for candidates, some of them foreign-born adoptees with special needs whose new parents had underestimated the burden of caring for them. "She'd barely get off the couch," says Melanie. "She'd be online all day looking at kids." In one instance, Melanie says, she went with her family to a truck stop in the Midwest to pick up one child, an episode that Debra has said never happened. (At the time of their arrest, the Schmitzes had seven kids living in their house who had not been adopted through official channels, though their lawyer has maintained that the couple intended to get legal custody.)

Both Melanie and Shirley believe that Debra's initial motive was to help kids but that financial gain soon became a factor. "After she found out how much money could be made, it never stopped," says Shirley. Authorities say that thanks to the kids for whom they had legal custody, the Schmitzes received about $84,000 a year alone from Social Security and state and federal subsidies, which are higher for special-needs children. "They were living pretty good," says Sheriff Shepard. "Beautiful home, beautiful antiques." Not so, says Debra, who has claimed that she received no support for the last seven children she brought into her home. "I wore rags," she told USA Today, "but my kids always looked wonderful."

How could such alleged abuse continue unnoticed? Police found evidence that the couple had rigged up a warning system to alert them when anyone—including child welfare workers, who made visits to the house over the years and reported nothing amiss—came up the driveway. Authorities say they found the house to be im maculately kept but concluded that Debra had used the kids to do the vast bulk of the cleaning. The alleged abuses came to light when two home health care workers learned from some of the children about life in the house and notified a doctor, who called the police.

At least one expert, Ronald Federici, author of Help for the Hopeless Child, who evaluated the family last year at the invitation of the defense, voices sympathy for Debra and Tom. "They were adoption addicts," says Federici. "They were well-intentioned people. They wanted to make the world better for kids who were abused. They got in way over their head because of their rescue fantasies. This was like a psychiatric facility without a medical director." As for the investigation, which relied heavily on the word of the children themselves, Federici questions how much credence that testimony should be given. "Only four kids were competent under psychological standards," he says. "The rest were retarded, autistic, brain damaged. They were so impaired. Yet all the statements went into gospel."

To officials, the stories the children told rang true. Investigator Curry recalls interviewing Nora, then a 15-year-old who wore a leg brace because of polio, who had been adopted in China and then dumped at the Schmitz home by parents who didn't want her. "She was telling us when she got in trouble Debbie made her sleep naked on the floor," says Curry. "She'd take her brace and the little girl would have to crawl up the steps." Even Schmitz friend Frances Matthews, who had a falling-out with her yet agrees that the accused couple wanted to do good and found themselves overwhelmed, recounts some disturbing practices. She acknowledges, for instance, that she was having such problems with her own adopted daughter Marianna, now 19, who has spina bifida, that she hit her in the face with a shoe (she was sentenced to 20 days in jail for that abuse) before sending her to live with the Schmitzes. But Debra, says Matthews, had no better luck with Marianna. "She said she had spanked her so hard that Marianna had an abscess on her behind," says Matthews.

In the run-up to the trial, which was expected to last about five days, all but two of the Schmitz children had been put in foster homes. That, says Matthews, has distressed Debra more than anything. "She's very depressed," says Matthews. "She wants her kids. She misses them. When they take your kids, you come unglued." Adds Matthews, with no intended irony: "She loved those children. Maybe she wasn't the best, but she loved them."

  • Contributors:
  • Maria Eftimiades / Trenton.